It’s fair to say that many were jarred by the undeniable comedown from Nicolas Winding Refn’s widely-lauded Drive to his calamitous Cannes disappointment Only God Forgives. In part because Refn’s latest is a stronger effort than his previous, but also because expectations have been suitably lowered, The Neon Demon is a more satisfying and less pretentious – albeit more overlong – step forward for the director, even if it lacks Drive’s blunt-force power.
Young aspiring model Jesse (Elle Fanning) arrives in Los Angeles with a spring in her step and soon enough begins booking gigs, to the veiled jealousy of fellow models Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote). As the industry at large becomes besotted with Jesse’s beauty, she soon enough transforms from nervy ingenue to confident provocateur, all while the allure of the business threatens to swallow her whole.
The Neon Demon is without question Refn’s most Lynchian film to date, albeit shot through a far more juvenile prism. The satire of the dog-eat-dog fashion industry is sometimes effective, sometimes not, but almost always at least compelling. As expected, Refn’s style is a real triumph here, even if that combination of neon lighting and Cliff Martinez’s synth score would probably feel like a lazy, even cynical crutch if he pulled it out again for his next film.
That’s not to discount some fine work in front of the camera; Fanning has proven herself a natural in recent years and quite unexpectedly leapfrogged her sister’s level of prodigious success, giving a nuanced performance that holds the screen’s attention at all times. Also of note are the reliably compelling Jena Malone as Jesse’s make-up artist pal Ruby, and Keanu Reeves in a startlingly against-type role as an extremely unpleasant motel manager for which the descriptor “creepy” certainly is not adequate.
It’s sure to be too WTF for some tastes – if you thought the womb scene from Only God Forgives was odd, brace yourself for what’s coming – and it’s definitely infatuated with its own obtuse symbolism, but it does enough good that the end product is at least a fascinating curio. Plus, after his previous brought us all back down to Earth, we had a much greater idea of what to expect. Love or hate it, there’s nothing exactly like it, and it beguiles accordingly.
The Neon Demon is available on VOD now